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For Syria, chemical weapons also a 'red line,' information minister says

Thursday, May 2, 2013 - 8:30am

DAMASCUS (CNN) -- Chemical weapons are a "red line" for Syria, too, a top government official said Thursday.

Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said in an exclusive interview with CNN that a hard-line Islamist rebel group has used chemical weapons in the civil war, and his government "would never use" such munitions "if we had them." And, he added, "we did not use them, and there will not be a use."

"President Obama says chemical weapons are a red line," al-Zoubi said. "Then he is in direct accordance with President (Bashar al-) Assad, who also thinks that chemical weapons are a red line."

The Syrian government-run media has been hitting home its stance that "terrorists" are handling chemical weapons and then blaming the use of them on the government.

For example, a Syrian Arab News Agency reporter, citing an official source, said Thursday that "terrorists" threw "unknown powder" in Idlib residents' faces to accuse the army of using chemical weapons.

"In the places where there is the opposition," al-Zoubi told CNN, "it is using chemical weapons that evaporate, and you smell it, they are filming it, and they are using it as alleged proof that the Syrian government is doing it."

The civil war engulfing Syria has left around 70,000 people dead, spurred massive displacement and caused widespread destruction.

The presence of chemical weapons and fear of their use in the war-torn country has raised profound alarm in world capitals, including Washington. That's because, Obama said recently, of the weaponry's "potential of killing massive numbers of people."

Syria denies that it has used, or even possesses, chemical weapons, but the West has long concluded that the country does have them. Obama previously called the use of chemical weapons a "red line" and a "game-changer" for how the United States approaches the war.

The United States hasn't intervened militarily, even though it has played a major role in drumming up opposition to al-Assad's rule.

The stakes rose last week when a White House aide sent a letter to two U.S. senators saying the intelligence community assessed "with varying degrees of confidence" that the regime used the chemical agent sarin on a "small scale."

The letter said "intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient -- only credible and corroborated facts" will determine U.S. "decision-making." As a result, Obama told reporters this week, the administration is investigating the data.

"We don't know how they were used, when they were used, who used them. We don't have a chain of custody that establishes what exactly happened," he said Tuesday at a news conference.

"It's important for us to do this in a prudent way. And what I've said to my team is, we've got to do everything we can to investigate and establish with some certainty what exactly has happened in Syria, what is happening in Syria."

The administration has backed opposition forces. What complicates U.S. support for the opposition, however, is that many of the rebel fighters are Islamic militants with pro-al-Qaeda sympathies -- the same stripe of militants America has battled in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They include an entity called the al-Nusra Front, or Jabhat al-Nusra, a rebel group that al-Zoubi says has used chemical weapons.

"We have proof," he said of al-Nusra's chemical weapons use.

The United States has designated the front as a terrorist group. But al-Zoubi finds it hypocritical that while the United States talks about fighting terrorism, "in reality it doesn't seem to be doing so." That's because, he said, Washington is more intent on accusing the Syrian government than on seeking the truth.

"America is not serious about discussing this type of chemical weapons use," al-Zoubi said. "It is shameful."

The United States says it is sending the opposition nonlethal material, not arms. But al-Zoubi has a different take on that.

"There seems to be a question as to the position of the United States toward Jabhat al-Nusra and al Qaeda. America talks about fighting terrorism, but in reality it doesn't seem to be doing so. How can you fight terrorism and count Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization and at the same time send weapons to these terrorists?"

He maintained that the government is "very sure" that chemical weapons in Syria were brought there from Turkey.

He said that he's not an expert on what chemical weapons are being used but that such a question should be asked of the leaders of Turkey and Qatar, because they are sending weapons to al-Nusra and al Qaeda. He said pressure on the Assad regime has been an obstacle to a fair U.N. investigation of the use of chemical weapons.

"If the United States wants to prove anything, they need to show the evidence to us. We are very sure that these weapons have come to Syria from Turkey. This is not a political accusation. This is based on facts. And Jabhat al-Nusra has said that this is true. There are videos that make this clear," al-Zoubi said.

Al-Zoubi says he wonders why Western nations are giving such weapons to al Qaeda and the al Nusra Front.

"Do they want to increase terrorism, or do they want to find a pretext to invade Syria? If they are trying to make them stronger, it means that the Western countries are on the same side as the terrorists," he said. "It is very clear that the United States, France and Turkey have a one-sided way of looking at this."

-- CNN's Joe Sterling and Salma Abdelaziz contributed to this report from Atlanta.

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